Aysmar followed Vanweer up the corridor and Mavis paused to unlock the heavy door and let them both in to Vanweer’s abandoned office.
“She didn’t even tell you where she was going?” Aysmar was astonished, she’d never seen her mother do a thing without first screaming at the timid Tingion who had been her assistant since she joined the military.
“No!” Mavis squeaked, looking up with wide eyes at Aysmar. “I made root brew, set it on her desk -“ Mavis stopped to indicate the cup of stone cold root brew still sitting squarely in front of Vanweer’s chair. “And usually, I put it in when I get the nod from the reception that she’s coming in to the building - then I scarper because she… well, she can be a little less patient in the mornings before she’s had it. Any earlier than that and it’s too cold by the time she gets to it and she doesn’t like that either. But if I time it just right then… well, anyway. So I did that and I left it on her desk and then I went to my cubby.”
Mavis poked her head out of the door and indicated to Aysmar a little notch in the wall where a Tingion could just about fit in to work. Aysmar was appalled. She’d never given it much thought but had just always assumed that Mavis had her own office down the corridor - she’d never noticed this tiny little nook.
“And she never showed up?” Aysmar wandered back into the office, but if she was hoping for clues as to what Vanweer was up to she was a fool.
“No! Never turned up. No messages or anything. It took me a while to notice, and then after 3rd Beats I realised she hadn’t shouted at me and I’d actually got through everything I needed to do so I popped my head in to see where she was. She wasn’t here. I went to her house, and she wasn’t there either. Neither… neither was Alliette. I’m sorry. But, listen, you should know Alliette was being well looked after. Much better than. Well, she was being well looked after.”
Aysmar nodded, trying to think quickly and clearly. Trying to think like Ezria. “Are the Skylorn’s being kept here?”
Mavis nodded, “Well, they were. They’re gone too.”
“Damn.” Aysmar smacked a fist into the desk and the cold root brew jumped under the vibrations.
“She has been awfully difficult to work with recently.” Mavis said quietly, and then squeaked at her own bravery: looking around the office as if she expected Vanweer to leap out of a shelf and smack her at any moment.
“Recently?” Aysmar snorted and Mavis let out a yelp of laughter and then quickly covered her mouth with a hand.
“Where would she have gone?” Mavis whispered and Aysmar eyed her cautiously. The tiny Tingion looked like she barely ate, and like she slept less than she ate.
“I don’t know.” Aysmar admitted, “I assume she’s looking for the stone she sent me to retrieve?” Aysmar let that settle on Mavis, trying to gauge her reaction.
“Yes, yes! She has been rather fixated on the stones project. It’s taken precedent over everything else. I’ve so much paperwork stacked up that she won’t even look at.” Mavis sighed and Aysmar smiled fondly at her.
“Do you like working for her?” Aysmar asked, catching Mavis off guard. Mavis turned an intense crimson and her mouth fell open as she hopped from foot to foot staring in bewilderment at Aysmar.
“What a question! What a question!” She stammered, “It is the honour of my life to be working… I think she is a magnificent… you can’t ask me a question like that!”
Aysmar laughed, feeling relaxed for the first time since Alliette had been removed from their house. Vanweer might be on a mission to become all powerful but she was already all hated.
“It’s alright Mavis, she’s my mother. There’s nothing she’s done to you that she hasn’t been doing to me since I was born. She’s a loathsome witch and a bully. I can’t believe you’ve put up with her as long as you have.”
Mavis looked astounded. She actually span around on the spot as though waiting to be clapped in irons and carted away to prison at a moment’s notice. She snorted, and then muttered under her breath and then began to laugh.
“So, who is in charge with Vanweer having abandoned her post?” Aysmar asked, sitting down in her mother’s seat and staring at the minute Tingion before her. Mavis nodded, and seemed oddly more comfortable with having someone in charge and in Vanweer’s chair.
“Protocol is… protocol is unclear, she had changed a few of the… er, smaller subsections during her tenure. And, as she’s not resigned or been killed it’s not, um, absolutely crystal in her… I don’t know.” Mavis ran out of steam and simply looked at Aysmar.
“I think you said she mentioned that she would want me to cover for her if she needed to take some emergency time out for personal issues didn’t she?” Aysmar asked, arching an eyebrow. Mavis broke into a wide smile, and then a frown, and then a grin again.
“She certainly, well, she certainly saw you as her second in command. I will see if I can dig out the paperwork… but, it might take me a while, and we… we oughtn’t to leave the city without… without a guard if we can help it…?” Mavis winked in what she thought was a very conspiratorial manner, but which actually involved the entire side of her face screwing up and stretching out again. Aysmar laughed.
“You’re absolutely right, Mavis. See if you can dig out that paperwork, but firstly - I need you to alert the 2nd, 4th and 5th battalions and tell them to be ready to march Topside. The 3rd need to take over duties in the city, along with the 6th through 10th. Can you do that?”
Mavis nodded, delighted to have the chain of command reinstated. She ducked out of Vanweer’s office, leaving Aysmar swinging in the big chair.
Marine couldn’t get her head around the range of noises Topside. They had been walking for so long her legs felt wobbly and weak. Her neck was twitchy from where she kept turning to try and spot little noises - birds tweeting or invisible threats rustling were all around her and no matter how much she tried to tell herself that the Topsiders existed up here happily and safely, she couldn’t relax.
There were 8 of them, trekking around the edges of the field and meeting with each of the 12 families. Marine, Kurann and Briar were joined by Eengo, Mulling, Joshish, Ezria and Sinfire.
Marine was walking with Kurann at her side, she hadn’t spoken to Briar since they had left the hedge, despite them trying their best to make amends and speak to her. She was tired - overwhelming tired, the sort of brain and body tired that made her wonder if she would ever fully recover. Even if she could get home and relax for a few days to mend her aching limbs, the world had now been blasted so wide open by everything she now knew that she didn’t think she’d be able to relax again. How could she go back to her trusting way of life, assuming everything would be ok and that she was generally safe?
They had already met with eight of the twelve families and met with no resistance at the idea of uniting to take on Vanweer. Sinfire seemed to know the leaders of each group intimately and they were all struggling with adjusting to life without the security of the stones.
Marine could feel her stone, or the stone she had come to think of as hers, back again in physical form in her pocket. She felt guilty every time she looked at the Topside Tingions who clearly felt so personally possessive of the stones. It wasn’t hers really, should she tell Sinfire she had it? Should she give it back? She knew she didn’t want to.
Marine glanced over at Briar wondering what they had told Sinfire about the stone. Had they mentioned to their mother that Ezria or Marine had a stone? Had they realised that Marine had lied to Aysmar and she did have the stone? If they had said anything to anyone then there had been no repercussions as yet.
This was the kind of confusing mess she wasn’t used to, Marine thought as she mutely greeted the next Topside family and settled down for a greatly appreciated cup of root brew and a bite to eat. She barely listened as Sinfire began the same speech she had used at the last eight meetings. Marine wasn’t used to having so many complications jostling for space within her skull. Her physically exciting feelings for Briar seemed stubbornly unwilling to disappear, despite her mind being furious with them for everything they had put her through. But then her treacherous brain offered solutions for Briar’s behaviour - they weren’t in charge, were they? What choice did they have? Didn’t Briar have an equal right to be angry at Marine for holding on to the stone when it clearly belonged Topside and to a different way of life?
She couldn’t stop thinking about her parents below ground locked up in some cell or other in Vanweer’s offices. Her feet twitched occasionally, as the impulse to make her way back to them and try to free them took over her muscles. Her mind would weigh in again, reminding her that she was attempting to free her parents by uniting the families and taking on Vanweer. It was all the same intentions but just a different plan. Life had been simpler when she didn’t have this many options.
The meeting was over and she got up with the other Tingions, bowing politely in thanks for the hospitality and leaving the hedge gap to carry on with the walk. As she left the hedge and looked at the size of the world, she wondered if she would give this up to go back to having fewer options? She shook her head, giving in to that exhaustion again. Her hand dipped in to her pocket and touched the stone. It felt warm and familiar against her skin.
Kurann came up beside her, “You ok?” He asked gently, and Marine was relived at his presence. She glanced up at the back of Briar’s head as they led the way.
“Tired.” She said, “3 to go, is that right?”
“Yep, not much more now.”
“Just back again afterwards.” Marine laughed.
“How do she know where to find them? I thought they moved around a lot?” Kurann asked, with mild curiosity in his voice. Marine paused, she didn’t know.
“Something to do with the stones?” She posited.
“Maybe.” Kurann considered, “I wish we knew what they wanted with the stones.”
“What do you mean? They’re theirs?” Marine looked at Kurann’s worried face.
“Well, yeah - but what are they for? Are the Topsiders magic when the stones are all here? What if we deliver the stones back from Vanweer to them and then find ourselves invaded by Topsiders?”
“They never did that before when they had them?” Marine felt a tingling of anticipation in her stomach, she wanted to talk to Ezria - to see if she knew what the Topsiders were capable of with all the stones.
The final three meetings with the families went as smoothly as the first nine. Marine was almost a little disappointed that there wasn’t some action, and then reminded herself how incredibly terrifying “action” had been any time she had encountered it so far. It wasn’t the story time excitement she had always felt when imagining it. She pictured the cold water of the river and the terrified look on Briar’s face as Aysmar had held the knife up to their throat. As she thought of it, Briar turned to look over their shoulder and back at Marine from their position at the front of the party. Briar smiled sadly, and Marine couldn’t stop herself smiling sadly back.
The light was fading by the time the little party found itself near the hedge. The evening was warm and quiet and they were quiet but content with the success of the mission. All twelve families were in agreement that they needed to do something about Vanweer. The disappearance of the stones from the Topside had been gradual, and each time one had vanished they had learned to cope without it - but all were in agreement that it couldn’t go on any longer.
“It’s quiet,” Ezria said, in a low voice and Marine smiled - enjoying the peace that seemed to come with this time of day Topside.
“I agree.” Sinfire growled back, “Too quiet.”
The smile vanished from Marine’s face.
“Where is everyone?” Briar asked in alarm, joining Sinfire at the front of the party, “We should be able to hear cooking and movement.” Marine looked at the Topsiders; they all looked worried. She shared a glance with Kurann who tried to smile reassuringly but it fell short of warming the air between them by some way.
“In line.” Sinfire whispered, “Heads down.” The Topsiders fell into single file behind Sinfire and the City Tingions joined the line at the back - not needing to crouch to keep their heads at the same level as the Topsiders. Marine felt her stomach roiling. Perhaps they had just decided to have an early night in the hedge? She tried to tell herself but not even part of her was falling for that reasoning.
They crept closer to the hedge - every rustling leaf under foot cracking louder in Marine’s nervous ears. The base seemed abandoned - there was no denying something was wrong now. Strained her eyes to see if any of the torches or fires were lit within the hedge - anything glowing just to give her a slight hope that a positive situation could be readable from this. There was nothing.
The silent line crept closer and closer until they were only a foot away from the entrance to the hedge. Sinfire held up a hand to tell the troupe to pause and they shrank silently into stillness. Sinfire and Briar crept forward, barely wobbling a blade of grass and they snuck up to the mouth of the hedge camp. Marine could just about make out their outlines in the dimming light. The change in light was hard to get used to up here: down below ground it was either lamps on or lamps off. Nothing else. Here, the light mixed and mingled and the colours washed in and out of the world. So many colours and it was a shame when they were gone. Marine hoped the morning would always bring them back. In many ways the light was much easier to use to know the progression of the day than waiting for beats. She liked it. But not right now when she wanted her eyes to be sharp and focused. She heard a gasp from Sinfire and Ezria, who had been crouched next to her broke into a run. Marine followed before she’d even considered whether or not she should.
She sprinted the few paces between her hiding place and the mouth of the hedge camp and then skidded to a halt by Ezria’s side. The hedge was abandoned save for two figures. There was chaos: broken twigs and shredded leaves, upended cooking pots and shells and the smashed detritus of a former home turned battle ground. Marine looked around dismayed and then her eyes pulled back to the two figures in the middle of the seating circle.
Eleff lay motionless with glassy eyes staring out at the dwindling daylight although, there was no chance they saw it. Her skin was red and mottled with dried blood and fading bruises. By her side, panting shallowly and being cradled by Sinfire was Mortglade. Ezria and Marine dashed forward at once to be by her side.
“Mortglade!” Ezria breathed.
“My Captain,” said Mortglade, her breathing sounding bubbly and her voice hoarse, “I’m so sorry we couldn’t hold them off.”
“Who did this?” Sinfire growled, looking at the decimation of her home and the murder of her guests.
“Vanweer, of course.” Mortglade half chuckled, “She turned up with the First Battallion looking for the stone. We tried to hold her off… but…” a gurgling cough cut off Mortglade’s sentence and Ezria stroked her damp hair. Marine felt hot tears prickling in her eyes. There was no way the few people at the hedge could have held off an entire batallion, let alone the first battalion - the most intensely trained Tingions in the city.
“Where are the others?” Asked Ezria, and Marine could see her eyes trying to avoid the lifeless form of Eleff. No one wanted to look at the pale face lying at a twisted angle on the ground.
“She took them. They are with her. She left us… me, here as a message. She did… she tried to get information out of us about the stone. She seems to have lost it, she thinks we have it. She really thought we’d know where it was.” Marine felt heavy, oil hot bubbling shame and guilt writhing through her veins as she thought of Vanweer torturing her friends to get information about a stone they knew nothing of, but that was sheltered in her pocket where she enjoyed the might of its power. Her throat felt tight and encased in dry mud.
“Don’t worry about the stone now, the old bitch has mislaid it and forgotten.” Ezria soothed and Mortglade chuckled faintly, “We just have to focus on healing you up. Where is the worst of it? Sinfire, what medical supplies do you have?”
Mortglade’s laugh gained in strength, “Don’t be daft, Talaglashi. You can hear this bubbling in my lungs same as me. She’s kicked me hard enough that there’s no willow bark to be found that will help. Don’t be daft.” She repeated herself gently, stroking Ezria’s hand as though it were her comforting Ezria and not the other way round.
“Did she say where she was going?” Sinfire asked, peering into Mortglade’s clouding eyes; her voice remaining gentle despite the urgency of her question.
“Back below.” Said Mortglade, “She’ll have it out on her terms.”
Sinfire looked pale and drawn; would the 12 families follow her beneath ground? There was a wet noise and Mortglade’s eyes closed. Her head lolled in towards Ezria’s breast and there was a silence within the hedgerow.
What do they do next?
- Move the bodies
- Go back round the families
- Wait for the families as planned
- Go straight below ground